Salman Anwar is Vice-President Education at Hull University’s student union and is a former president of the University’s Conservative Society.
The general election saw Labour outperform expectations: during the campaign, most politicians and pundits were discussing not whether the Conservatives would win a majority, but rather how big that majority would be. Since the result was not as we had hoped, we now need to reflection on why some voters left us, and backed Corbyn’s party. The youth vote was both energised by him and, in truth, in part put off by Theresa May and her campaign. The Labour leader had policies, such as free tuition fees, that helped to inspire and engage many young voters while we offered nothing.
Consequently, some in the Party now view our stance on those fees as a source of our problems. But while Corbyn promised scrapping tuition fees, most students recognise the need for some sort of fee system. Tuition fees now make up the majority of most universities income – so scrapping tuition fees would severely impact the funding of universities. The idea of marketing tuition fees as a kind of ‘graduate contribution’ may be a better solution than simply making students apply for them. However, there is one aspect of student university funding that none of the parties are presently talking about, but which has been bubbling away for years: namely, the size of maintenance grants and loans.
Despite Labour’s promise to scrap tuition fees, Labour promised only to “reintroduce maintenance grants for university students”: it doing nothing to specify the amount and how they would work in future for students. Currently, maintenance loans are means tested, and linked to parental income. The belief that underpins this arrangement is that those who receive lower levels of maintenance loans from student finance are able to receive ‘top up’ support from their parents.
However, this system poses a number of problems. Means-testing based on parental income seems sensible, and also the only feasible way to means-test maintenance loans. But this arrangement fails to take into account how willing parents are to support their children. Parents can be generous; parents can be harsh. This variety is not taken into account by student finance. Parents also may have to support other children – not just the one. The current student finance system means that parental support can be stretched. With income bands that cut off and taper in quickly, many low and middle income parents find that they are unable to adequately support their children at university.
Sure, students could work whilst studying to help make up the money. However, if we’ve giving students maintenance loans to cover their rent and living expenses, the money available should at least cover that. Students often find themselves in situations in which their maintenance loans don’t cover their rent. And that’s before taking into account the fact that some universities don’t allow their students to have part-time jobs.
So instead, the Conservatives should propose a radical shake-up of the maintenance loan system in which we instead aim to give students a universal maintenance loan, breaking the link from parental income to the overall loan. Yes, this would involve giving a maintenance loan to wealthier students. However, we could design a system by which students could reject the loan; or else have a mix of loans and grants within the system within the same overall budget.
All in all, there is a case for keeping tuition fees. Labour’s plan for scrapping them is regressive, and would benefit the wealthiest students the most, while leaving universities with a financial black hole – and all the while not addressing the major issue affecting them: the cost of living, which is a far bigger problem for most of them than tuition fees will ever be.